The vestibule of the Cap Hill Cuban bar is glitzy but also suggests a sense of lost prosperity and is juxtaposed by minimalist bathrooms.

Image: Andrew Waits

THINK OF YOUR favorite restaurant or bar. What is it about that place? What keeps drawing you back? Food and drinks are a factor, for sure, and maybe a certain hospitable server has you charmed, but more often than not it’s another, less tangible allure: ambience.

Eric Hentz has built a career on building atmospheres. His company, Mallet, is behind a long list of notable dine-and-drink destinations and yet he’s hardly a marquee name in the design community. “We’re the little guy behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz,” says Hentz, who left his instructor position at UW 13 years ago to open Mallet (419 Denny Way, Ste 201, Belltown, 206-767-1875; malletinc.com). In that time, just one of the bars and restaurants he’s built has closed. “He knows how to build businesses people want to be in,” says Quentin Ertel, owner of two Hentz—designed bars on Capitol Hill: Havana and the Saint. “He builds institutions.”

Most recently Hentz has been working on two very different projects. The first, Cure, is a sweet, small noshery on Capitol Hill from two first-time business owners. The second—still under construction at press time and set to open mid-June—is big-ticket RN74, celebrity chef Michael Mina’s downtown offshoot of the San Francisco original (Mallet is collaborating with New York architectural firm AvroKo). This little guy–big guy dichotomy speaks to the breadth of Hentz’s work—and the relatively egoless approach he brings to every project.

Here, he lifts the curtain on five memorable creations.

 

Havana

Hentz likes to contrast traditional building forms with modern additions, creating a dialogue between the two styles. The vestibule of the Cap Hill Cuban bar is glitzy but also suggests a sense of lost prosperity and is juxtaposed by minimalist bathrooms—the net result is a total clash that somehow works.

Ertel’s idea was to create an Old World club that looked as if it had slowly fallen into disrepair. To heighten the effect, Hentz used worn light fixtures Ertel found in Seattle and Tacoma junk stores; the sconces and chandelier were salvaged from a pickup truck on the way to the dump. “I brought trash to Eric, and he was like, ‘All right, we can make something work with this.’ ” That meant fusing new glass with the old to repair broken pieces.

 

 

Café Presse

At Café Presse, a former auto garage hailing from Capitol Hill’s early-1900s auto boom, Hentz built the kitchen in the middle of the restaurant to create two separate dining rooms, making for a more intimate atmosphere. The marble bar he sourced from Alicante, Spain: Flanked by baby-blue floral wallpaper and dainty glass shelves, it’s an elegant contrast with the restaurant’s utilitarian and masculine look—intensified by ceiling-high seismic beams.

“The structural engineers thought we were crazy,” Hentz says of those beams, also dominant in the neighboring Stumptown (he overhauled that interior, too). Before opening, the space required major structural upgrades, but building owners Scott Shapiro and Wade Weigel wanted to preserve the historical charm, particularly the sandblasted brick. That meant installing vertical straps on top of the brick—an intensive and expensive effort. But it paid off: The design has come to define the restaurant.

 

 

 

 Le Pichet

When Campagne alum Jim Drohman set out to open Le Pichet in downtown Seattle with his business partner, Joanne Herron, Hentz was tasked with converting a carpeted Russian teahouse into a traditional Parisian cafe. “A French cafe has to feel natural,” Drohman says. If patrons focus on the design, the magic is lost. So, how to imbue the lived-in feel of centuries-old buildings abroad? Taking as inspiration one of Paris’s classic wine bars, La Tartine, Hentz painted the interior off-white then dry-brushed a boat varnish on top to create a nicotine-streaked effect. Today it looks as if “somebody had smoked here for 40 years and it hadn’t been repainted,” says Hentz.

Pulling bits and pieces from boites he’d haunted throughout Europe, Hentz hand-built a bar topped with ornate zinc—it’s one of the first in Seattle. And because they believe people-watching is one of the principal joys of cafe hopping in Paris, Hentz and Drohman hung mirrors all over the walls—including an enormous one beside the bar. The dings that to this day scar Le Pichet’s south-facing wall trace back to opening night, when Drohman and Herron were still rearranging the mirrors to allow optimal peeping at other people’s quiches.

 

Ace Hotel 

At the hip Ace Hotel in Belltown, once a dilapidated, trash-filled halfway house, the entry and stairwell that lead to the lobby are undistinguished, but, Hentz says, “Once you get to the top, the magic happens.” In the building’s former light well, guests lounge beneath ceilings reaching 14 feet. Alongside the dark-floored, nine-foot-high corridors, the lobby feels considerably larger than it actually is.

A decade after the hotel opened, Hentz rejiggered the lobby, bringing in a 14-foot trestle table made out of recycled beams from a warehouse near Forks in Western Washington. Bored by the many restaurants and bars around town using repurposed wood, but unwilling to paint a plank as pristine as fir, Hentz got creative: He soaked steel wool in vinegar and applied it to wood, an ancient Japanese technique that triggers an acidic reaction, bringing out the wood’s natural tannins and blackening it. The effect is all the more striking inside the stark, glossy lobby.

 

Cure 

Opened in May, Cure—a 750-square-foot concrete rectangle with a wall of windows looking out toward Cal Anderson Park—has little room for fanciful detailing. But Hentz installed a large piece of glass in front of the kitchen where first-time restaurateurs Amy and Eric Haldane write the menu in white grease pencil—a design opportunity that’s also a space saver. Vintage fruit crates procured by Sarah Littlefield, Seattle Junk Love blogger, double as shelving. Littlefield also scoured the state to find mismatched seats for Cure’s dozen or so tables. “She spent three weeks sending me photos like, ‘How about this chair? How about this chair?’ ” says Amy.

Here’s why the right chair matters: Hentz says every piece of the design works to soften Cure’s modern lines, while textured touches like Dutch gloss paint with a brilliant finish “deepen the experience” of sitting at a parkside cafe.

“A lot of design is not sensitive enough to how a person will feel within a space,” says Hentz. “Controlled reveals are much less important than building an interesting environment piece by piece, layer by layer.”